Disclaimer: This is an ARC review courtesy of WhipSmart Books in exchange for an honest and unbiased review!
Author: Ruthy Ballard
Star Rating: 4
Genre: Middle Grade Whimsical Fantasy
Release Date: October 1st, 2020 (paperback- ebook can be found here for only $4.99!)
Frankie Russo isn't the son his parent's expected. He isn't like his brother, Alex. He isn't an all-star soccer player, rock climber, or academic. Frankie has trouble focusing on the future, and by far prefers to live in the present. In fact, his favorite part of the present is what he makes it. Frankie has the gift of fantasy, and with it he can go anywhere and do anything. His fantasies also take him on journeys through his mind until one day he explores a mysterious glowing crack in the ceiling that sends him spiraling to the planet of Urth in another galaxy. It's up to Frankie and his Uppy, Ideth, to find and complete the important mission that sent him there.
Meanwhile, at home, Frankie's parents are frantically searching for their missing son. They work with the police, psychics, and neighbors to find him. The longer Frankie is gone, the worse his fate seems to be. When tensions run high, all fingers point to an innocent man for a murder that didn't happen.
"Oh, it's quite mysterious"..."But I won't call it magic because the things we call magic often don't turn out to be magic, but simply things we don't understand yet. And when we understand them, we no longer call them magic."
I seldom pick up whimsical middle grades, but I almost always enjoy them when I do! This particular book felt like it was heavily inspired by A Wrinkle in Time, though Frankie and the Gift of Magic was more on the fantasy-side than the sci-fi.
In my opinion, it is extremely important for middle grades to respect and acknowledge a child's ability to learn and comprehend big topics. All too often in our current publishing climate do I find middle grades that are excessively "dumbed down" for its audience. Never underestimate a child's ability for context clues, logic, and critical thinking. I hate that I saw a review for this book that claimed it was "too mature" for its target audience. I couldn't disagree more. If a series like A Series of Unfortunate Events or Avatar: The Last Airbender can be understood so deeply by a young audience that it can define a generation of readers, then this light and fun book absolutely can too.
The issues this book covers are vast and often deep, which is why someone may think this book is too mature. I feel the book handles it very appropriately for the age group with a witty and conversational narration, and this book could be used to open doors for some very important and fruitful conversations for a child. This book tackles the uncomfortable truth of how weak someone in a 1st world country can be without their creature comforts. It expresses to a child what hunger and starvation really mean. It discusses how your unique "gifts" can be used poorly or for good. There is also a lot of commentary on body positivity and being comfortable with your own uniqueness. In some more deeper topics, there's discussion on preparedness, our responsibility to help others in need, traumatic childhoods not defining who you are, how quickly an assumption can hurt someone, your actions always have consequences, and that it's important to always pursue your best self. All of these important topics make this book worth reading at any age. This middle grade is very thought provoking and full of depth.
Although there is a strong presence of extremely positive and important conversations in this book, there is some content that could potentially be harmful. There is representation in here that may not have been handled very well. There is a community that could be a parallel representation of Island Natives that is skewed negatively by a character in the book. It is very stereotyped, and the community is viewed as immature and incapable of caring for themselves. I do not think the community was written this way out of malice, but as a way to demonstrate the emotional and mental growth of characters portrayed in the book. There is development as the story progresses, but this point of view does exist, and I think it's important for a young reader to be aware of why this could be hurtful.
It's important to note that this is the first book in a series, and it very much feels like one. Ballard keeps the chapters very short, sweet, and readable, but this book certainly suffers from what I call "first book syndrome" which occurs often in youth fantasy. A beautiful and vivid world is created within these pages. The author does an absolutely phenomenal job of introducing the reader to the world at a rate that keeps the story magical. It's very similar to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in that way. It's beautiful, but the story arc is sometimes flat. Instead of getting a roller coaster of story, we get an absolutely straight road with a small hill at the end. There are no minor plot lines along the way to the main climax. Most of the book is exposition in order to explore the world building. As dry and frustrating as that can become, I do understand that Ballard was intending to get the world building out of the way to open doors for the books to come. It's understandable, but it certainly does slow down the reading pace quite a bit.
On the same token, I can think of many places where Ballard has left loose ends for some potentially exciting sequels! I loved the world she created and am curious to see what she dreams up next. This is an author I will certainly be keeping my eyes on! I can see this series diving more into the world and characters brilliantly!